By Kathryn Jean Lopez
“A person with Father Curran’s dissenting point of view would not be hired at CUA today,” says outgoing president of The Catholic University of America, Vincentian Father David O’Connell.
Father Charles Curran was a theology professor removed by the Vatican from CUA’s faculty in 1986 after decades of dissent on sexual morality. Father O’Connell’s comment, in an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, underscores a main theme of his tenure: Catholic identity.
After 12 years as president of the Washington, D.C.-based university, founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1887 as the national Catholic university, and the only university in the United States with ecclesiastical faculties to grant canonical degrees in canon law, philosophy and theology, Father O’Connell, 54, announced in October that this will be his last year at CUA.
For Father O’Connell, the Curran comments come from a position not of exclusion but integrity: “[The] Catholic University of America must be a rigorous and faithful intellectual center in the Church, with the Church and for the Church. Its theologians, philosophers and canonists teach ‘in the name of the Church.’ That’s not where dissenters seek to be.”
Father O’Connell’s tenure at CUA began during the heart of the debate over Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), the apostolic constitution on higher education, here in the United States. During his inaugural address, Father O’Connell said CUA needed to be “unambiguously Catholic,” and would lead “the discussion and model the relationship between Catholic universities and colleges and the Church.”
Has such a focus necessitated a sacrifice of academic freedom? Not at all, says Father O’Connell: “Academic freedom at CUA means the same thing here that it should mean everywhere else.”
“By its very nature, academic freedom exists in relationship to responsibilities and duties that exercising it imposes within the academic context,” he said. “By its very nature, academic freedom is limited by the subject matter of the academic discipline itself, the principles and methods proper to the academic discipline itself, the scholarly competence of the individual professor, the search for and exposition of truth which is the proper object of human reason and faith, and respect for the rights of others and the common good.”
Father O’Connell notes that his definition echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s, delivered at CUA during his visit to Washington in April 2008 (see sidebar).
By many faculty and staff reviews, he’s been faithful to his goals — in and out of the classroom, on and off campus.
Stephen Schneck, director of CUA’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (until recently called the Life Cycle Institute), gives Father O’Connell high marks: “Since [Pope] John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, The Catholic University of America has been ground zero for the question of what it really means to be both Catholic and a university. ... Like anyone, he’s made some missteps ... but he’s never lost his focus on the crucial question itself. By my measure, this place is both more Catholic and more of a university thanks to [Father] O’Connell’s leadership.”
Controversies during the course of his tenure have included debates over campus-group funds and speakers, usually involving the question of abortion.
Msgr. Kevin Irwin, dean of CUA’s School of Theology and Religious Studies, says that “the O’Connell years will be remembered as a time when Catholic identity and the mission of this Catholic university was refocused and well established.” Msgr. Irwin heads a school that has been restructured during the O’Connell years. It is now a place where “all faculty in all of the theological and religious disciplines teach both undergraduates and graduate students. This means that all students interface with a world- class theological faculty.”
Faculty also participate in campus symposia, most recently on the Pauline year and the Year for Priests, “help[ing] to put a public face on the theological study that is done here” while “provid[ing] a service to the wider Church that a faculty like CUA’s can,” he said.
The catholicity of CUA isn’t a mere academic endeavor. One tangible difference from the past: In need of a chaplain, a Franciscan friary moved onto campus shortly after Father O’Connell’s arrival.
“I have noticed a change in campus life in the past 12 years,” says John Convey, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education. “There are many examples, including more students attending retreats, better attendance at liturgies, increased attendance at adoration and more students participating in the blessing of dorm rooms that is done annually at the beginning of the academic year.” Convey adds that “Father O’Connell is very visible on campus, often hanging out with the students and attending their activities. He is very aware of what is going on in student life.”
And it’s not just on campus where a change is notable. While increasing the size of the campus — the student body has increased by 23 percent and CUA has expanded 95 acres, with new and renovated facilities — during the O’Connell years, the school has hosted everything from the papal visit to a 2004 debate between the Republican and Democratic Party chairs, both CUA alumni.
Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the adjacent Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, says Father O’Connell “put Catholic University back on the map.”
“He raised the quality of the students being accepted, raised the bar for professors in the different schools and restored ‘catholicity’ and Catholic identity at Catholic University,” he said.
So will the witness continue and deepen?
Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, chairman of CUA’s board of trustees and head of the search committee for Father O’Connell’s successor, said the board expected a new president to “take Catholic University to the next level of excellence as the exemplar for what it means to be a university ‘born from the heart of the Church’: confident that serving all of its constituencies in the Church and in civil society is best done by sharing the light of wisdom which comes from faith and reason in dialogue together.”
“I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom.
“In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you.
“Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission, a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi [teaching mission]and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, addressing educators at
The Catholic University of America, April 17, 2008
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com) and an alumna of The Catholic University of America.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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